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Silence had fallen over the arena but for the gloomy droplets smacking the ground, the plants, the canopy over the stands. The hunters were restless, still weary from the fight with the bärgeist. The children watched with curious, expectant faces.
“It is with greatest delight,” started the Erlking, lifting Serilda’s hand and pressing a kiss to her knuckle, “that I share with you the most glorious news.” His eyes glittered as he watched Serilda squirm. “My queen, gem of my heart, has informed me that we are with child.”
Even expecting them, the words struck Serilda like a bolt to the chest.
Weare with child.134
She wanted to pull away from him. To tell them it wasn’t true. The child wasn’t his. The child would never be his.
But she kept her expression placid.
God of lies, help me see this through, she thought. And then, to even her surprise, a tiny smile dared to creep across the corners of her lips.
She could do this. She had to do this.
“By the grace of Eostrig,” said the Erlking, with a clever twist to his mouth making it clear that he meant this as a taunt, “we shall have a new prince or princess to celebrate by the new year.” He lifted their entwined hands into the air. “Raise a cheer for our Alder Queen!”
A cry went up among the gardens, though it was unclear how many of the dark ones were truly rejoicing at the news. After ages without a royal heir, they must think that such an addition was frivolous. They were immortal. They needed no progeny to pass on their legacies.
As the cheers died down, the king dismissed their audience. While hunters began gathering their weapons and chains and the servants started tearing down the stands, Serilda tried to extricate her hand from his grip, but the Erlking held fast.
“Was there more?” she said, not hiding her irritation.
“You are not pleased? But you so enjoy being the center of attention.”
“Whatever gave you that impression?”
He considered her. “One does not barge into a haunted castle and demand a bargain with the Alder King unless they have some appreciation for the dramatic.”
Serilda glared at him. “It might have been nice to have some warning.” She again tried to pull away. He again refused to loosen his grip. “I wish to retire,” she said through her teeth. Then she leaned closer to him, lowering her voice to a growl. “You would not keep your pregnant wife from her rest, would you?”
“Of course not. I just think there is something you are forgetting.”
“And what is that?”
He lifted an eyebrow. “How much we adore each other.”135
With his free hand, he cupped Serilda’s ear and neck, tipped her back, and claimed her mouth with his.
Serilda went rigid.
The moment he attempted to deepen the kiss, she bit him.
The Erlking pulled back with a hiss, though he managed to hide it from anyone who might be watching.
Then, as if brought on by the Erlking’s anger, a bolt of lightning shot from the sky, striking the keep with a boom of thunder so loud it rumbled the castle grounds. Serilda jumped from the king’s arms and clapped her hands to her ears.
The rain became a torrent. Thick, heavy drops that struck like pebbles. It had been too warm lately for Serilda to require her dutiful wool cloak—the one Gild had once mended for her after a horrific drude attack—but as the storm began in earnest, she wished she had it with her.
“The children and I will retire now,” said Serilda, yelling to be heard over the storm.
But the Erlking was not paying any attention to her. His focus was on the sky, drawn with suspicion as the rain soaked his clothes. “It can’t be …,” he murmured.
More lightning streaked from the clouds, making the hairs on Serilda’s arm lift from her chilled skin. One bolt hit the Erlking’s statue in the gardens, sending it toppling to the ground.
“Hunters!” bellowed the Erlking, reaching for his crossbow. “Gather the chains and follow me! Quickly!”
Serilda did not know what he thought they were going to be hunting in this storm, and with the veil down no less, but she was more concerned with herself and the children and poor Anna. She found them huddled in what shelter they could find beneath a plum tree. Anna had managed to get to her feet, and had her arms slung around Hans’s and Nickel’s shoulders.